2000: Leonora Bohen LaPeter, Savannah (Ga.) Morning News
5/31/2000
ASNE Staff
Award for Deadline News Reporting
Wednesday, May 31, 2000
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Deadline News Reporting


Leonora Bohen LaPeter

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Friend accused of killing four members of Daniels family: defense claims mental illness

August 13, 1999

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Pause. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Ashley Lewis hit the counter of the oak witness box with his index finger, mimicking what he heard through a crack in the bathroom window the night of Dec. 4, 1997, as he got ready for bed.

It sounded like a typewriter. But Lewis, testifying on the first day in the death penalty trial of Jerry Scott Heidler for the murder of a family in Santa Claus a year-and-a-half ago, found it hard to believe his mother, a secretary, would break out her typewriter at almost 2 a.m. Just a half hour before, she had told him to turn the television off and go to bed.

Lewis walked to his mother's room and turned on the light. She was asleep in bed. He walked through the house, turning on other lights. Nothing.

"I got this real eerie feeling," Lewis said.

Lewis did not know it yet, but a half -mile away, four of his neighbors lay dead.

 

***

Three hours later, Toombs County Sheriff's Department Deputy Mike Harlin arrived at the doorstep of the Daniels family on Dasher Lane in Santa Claus. Just about every light in the one-story brick house was on. He thought that was odd for 5:10 a.m.

He knocked on the front door, which was slightly ajar. No answer. Through a window to the left, he noticed the arm of a small child in a bunk bed by the window.

He walked in and announced he was there. He heard a baby crying and a radio playing music. He walked toward the room with the child in it. On the top bunk, he found what was left of 8-year-old Bryant Daniels, who had been shot through the eye.

"I have a small boy myself," Harlin said, swallowing hard as he recalled the image on the witness stand Monday afternoon. "At that point, it was pretty obvious that words wouldn't help."

Harlin moved through the house, running into 4-year-old Corey Daniels near the dining room table. Harlin knelt down beside the child.

"Mama and Daddy are dead. Brother Guy shot them all," Corey said.

A baby continued to cry. The radio, obviously an alarm for early rising postal worker Danny Daniels, continued to play music.

Harlin opened the door of the master bedroom. The first thing he noticed was the gun cabinet with several empty slots where guns had been. Next he noticed a body up against the door, preventing him from opening it further. Corey showed him another entrance to the room, through a laundry room and a bathroom.

Harlin walked into the sunken bedroom and found 10-month-old Gabriel standing between his baby bed and his parents' king-sized bed, hanging onto the sheets. Beneath the sheet lay Kim Daniels, 33, who had been shot in the head. Danny Daniels, 47, also was dead on the bed. And a third body, that of 16-year-old Jessica Daniels, lay over by the door.

 

 ***

"What's your worst nightmare?" asked Toombs County District Attorney Richard Malone. "If you're a father, it's someone breaking into your house. If you're a young child, it's being taken away from your home and being molested. If you are an infant, maybe it's being left alone in the house among the dead bodies of your mother and father."

Malone, a portly man with an obvious passion for his case, has the attention of the 16 jurors, 12 of whom will decide the fate of Heidler, 22, and four alternates.

"It's about all these nightmares happening to a good family in a very small town called Santa Claus in south Georgia," he continued.

Kim and Danny Daniels met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 1992 and married. Between them they had four children. Kim Daniels had been in foster homes as a child, and she wanted to help others in her situation. From 1995 to their deaths, the couple took in seven children, testified Jackie Alexander, foster care supervisor for the Department of Family and Children Services.

One of those children was Jo Anna Moseley, Scott Heidler's then 10-year-old sister.

Moseley stayed with the Danielses for six weeks. Her brother, Heidler, came to visit her. Malone said the Danielses realized Heidler was troubled and took him to their church, the Mount Vernon Pentecostal Church.

But soon Heidler became unwelcome in the Daniels' residence. Danny Daniels told Heidler to go away because he thought the Alma man was having an inappropriate relationship with 16-year-old Jessica. He thought Heidler was too old for his daughter.

Malone gave a detailed account of what happened the night of Dec. 4, 1997, during his opening argument Monday. Heidler drank and played pool and stole his neighbor's van, the prosecutor said. He drove to the Daniels' home, entered through the window and went directly to the gun cabinet he knew was in the Daniels' bedroom.

He took a Remington semiautomatic shotgun, loaded it with buck shot and went to the back door, which he cracked. He then proceeded to smoke a cigarette. He crushed it on the floor. Then he walked into the master bedroom and shot Kim and Danny Daniels as they slept, Malone said.

She died almost immediately. He survived.

Heidler, Malone said, reloaded the weapon and moved to 8-year-old Bryant's room and turned on the light. He shot the boy in the eye socket and blew his head off.

Jessica jumped from her bed and ran toward her parents' room. Heidler followed her, and as she opened the door to her parents' room, he shot her from behind in the back of the head.

Danny Daniels was still alive and Heidler knew it, Malone said. So he shot Danny some more until he was dead. Then he went to the other end of the house and ushered three of the Daniels' girls, ages 8, 9 and 10, into a van. He left behind Corey and Gabriel.

Heidler traveled about 15 miles to the Altamaha River, where he asked one of the girls to step out. He sodomized one of the girls, while a third girl watched. He threw the gun into the Altamaha River, drove back to Alma and dropped the girls off on a dirt road.

 

 ***

Almost immediately, lawyer Kathy Palmer, defending Heidler with Michael Garrett, got to the heart of her defense with two words.

Mental illness.

She pointed out that Heidler, at his arraignment a year ago, stood mute. He wouldn't plead guilty. He wouldn't plead not guilty. So the clerk of court automatically put him down for not guilty.

She acknowledged that what happened to the Daniels family was a great tragedy, but she urged jurors to listen to what people had to say about Heidler's mental state. "I wanted to raise issues of mental illness and put that out there at the outset," she said after Monday's session.

Already it is clear where defense lawyers are going. They won a battle Monday afternoon to get DFACS to release records on all of Heidler's family members, including his two sisters, two brothers and his mother. DFACS had argued against releasing the information.

His mother, waiting outside the courtroom Monday afternoon presumably to testify, declined to comment.

Malone summed it up for the jurors.

"This was a nightmare from which the Danielses will never awake, but it's not your nightmare," he said. "Your job is to take the evidence and come up with the truth."


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Grisly video shows slaying scene

September 1, 1999

Connie Smith bowed her head and kept it there.

Sitting in the front row of a Monroe courtroom Tuesday -- surrounded by family and friends -- she couldn't bear to look at the television screen.

It showed the inside of her sister, Kim Daniels', home in Santa Claus the morning of Dec. 4, 1997, about seven hours after Kim, 33, her husband, Danny, 47, and their two children, Jessica, 16, and Bryant, 8, died from shotgun blasts as they slept in their beds.

"They're in Bryant's room now," whispered Amy Tomberlin, a best friend from church, into Smith's ear.

The video camera panned through young Bryant's room, showing the bunk beds where he and brother, Corey, 4, slept. A toy truck on the floor near a shotgun shell and a boy's jacket. A closet with boys' clothes and a bowling pin on the floor.

And blood. Splattered on the walls next to the bed, near a framed photo of Bryant in a red baseball cap holding a bat. The boy's arm poked out from beneath a sheet on the top bunk bed.

Smith, 33, grasped a tissue and wiped her eyes, still keeping her head down.

Across the courtroom, the man accused of killing the Daniels' family also kept his head down, staring at a spot on the gray-blue rug in front of him for hours on end.

Jerry Scott Heidler, 22, sat solitary at the defense table as his lawyers, the prosecutors and observers moved over to the other side of the room and gathered around a single television that showed the carnage he is accused of causing.

Though offered the opportunity, he declined to view the gruesome video.

Kim and Danny Daniels lying in their bed, shot dead, beneath a white comforter with light blue flowers. Jessica, facedown in her nightgown on the steps leading down to the bedroom between a desk with a calculator and a dresser with socks and diapers and other clutter on top.

Shotgun shells strewn throughout the house, two near Jessica, one in the bathroom leading into the master bedroom where the family's bodies were found; one in a small garden tub in the master bedroom, one in the laundry room, another in Bryant's room, still another on the couch in the living room beneath a plastic pitcher. A Marlboro cigarette mashed into the floor near the back door with saliva on it that matches Heidler's DNA.

Kim was shot two times, once in the stomach, another time in the arm, medical experts testified. Danny may have been shot four times. A bullet to the head finally killed him. Jessica was shot once in the back of the head. Bryant was shot once in the head. Death for the two children was instantaneous, medical experts said. Kim and Danny may have lived for a matter of minutes.

The video moved to an aerial view of the brick house with the cornflower blue shutters located between a pond and larger lagoon lined by trees.

Finally, Smith looked up at the television.

The home where the Daniels lived with seven children, many of them foster children, is in a pastoral setting at the end of a dirt road in the tiny town of Santa Claus in Toombs County.

But Smith could not shield herself from the little girl on the video who told of being abducted from her home and sodomized by Heidler in a van at the Altamaha River that same night. The girl said Heidler, known to her as Scott Taylor, woke her up that morning, holding a shotgun.

He said a burglar had broken into the house and Kim Daniels had told him to take her away. Heidler then got two of the other Daniels' girls to come with him. He took the trio, ages 8, 9 and 10, in a van for a drive that ended beneath a bridge at the Altamaha River.

In a little girl's voice, the child described how Heidler got out for a while and then returned. He drove to the top of the bridge and threw the shotgun into the water, she said. Then he drove some more and dropped the girls on a dirt road on the outskirts of Alma, Heidler's hometown.

Asked if any of the girls had been harmed by Heidler, the girl paused. Then she started crying and buried her head in her arms.

She was only willing to confide her story to a woman from the Department of Children and Family Services. A male Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent left the room. Then the girl, with little emotion and obvious discomfort, told her story.

Smith, friends and other family members of the Daniels and even a few jury members shed tears to varying degrees as the child described Heidler's actions that night.

Prosecutors offered some insight on Tuesday into a possible motive for the slayings. Guy Aaron, Danny Daniels' best friend, said Daniels was concerned that a relationship had sprung up between his daughter and Heidler. Heidler's sister, Jo Anna Mosley, was a foster child in the Daniels' home for six weeks, and the family tried to help her troubled brother also, Aaron said.

"At times, Kim and Danny felt sorry for him,"   Aaron said. "They were out to help people. Scott (Heidler) happened to be one of those people."

Guy said even he had seen Jessica and Heidler together on the steps of the house.

"You could tell something was beginning to take place, how people get close to one another,"   Aaron said.

Daniels told Aaron he was concerned because of the age difference between Heidler and Jessica. Several months before the murders took place, Danny Daniels told Heidler to stay away from the home.

"After that I didn't see him no more,"   said Aaron, who went hunting with Daniels and saw or talked to him almost every day.

After Tuesday's testimony ended, District Attorney Richard Malone said he might be able to squeeze the rest of his case into today. The other two girls, who were not sexually abused, are also expected to offer videotaped testimony. The defense has the opportunity to cross-examine them, but lawyers have not said whether they plan to do so. Still, prosecutors have stowed the girls at an Athens hotel should the need arise.

Family members appeared drained by Tuesday's testimony. Many were unwilling to talk about it. Smith, afraid she might cry, said simply: "  It's hell."


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Jury sends Santa Claus killer to electric chair

September 4, 1999

The jury had left.

The sentence had been read.

Jerry Scott Heidler's face was still as stone.

Only when Superior Court Judge Walter C. McMillan Jr. actually sentenced Heidler to death for the murder of the Daniels family did Heidler break down for the first time and cry.

 Sitting at the defense table surrounded by six guards, his hands and legs shackled, Heidler shook with the force of his tears. He didn't say anything but wiped his nose on his blue and green polo shirt and folded his hands on his lap.

Four death sentences, one each for Danny, 47, Kim 33, Jessica, 16, and Bryant, 8, whom Heidler shot dead in their beds in Santa Claus on Dec. 4, 1997. Two additional life sentences for kidnapping one of the Daniels' daughters and sodomizing her by the Altamaha River. Another 110 years for kidnapping two other Daniels' daughters and subjecting one of them to witness the molestation of her sister.

McMillan gave Heidler the maximum sentence on all charges, saying the 22-year-old Alma man did not deserve mercy when he showed no mercy on the Daniels family. He set Heidler's execution date for between Oct. 1 and Oct. 8, although the sentence will be automatically appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia within 30 days.

And McMillan expressed sorrow for the tiny town of Santa Claus, which must celebrate Christmas and remember Heidler in the same month for years to come.

Jurors seemed to take Friday's decision much harder than the guilty verdict they rendered on Thursday. They sent a note to the judge about an hour into their deliberations, saying they had prayed for everyone and wanted to read a statement when they gave their verdict.

About 45 minutes later, they emerged from the jury room, many of them overwrought with tears as jury foreman James Burrows read the death sentence.

"We have shared in this with you and, like you, it has changed our lives forever," Burrows read from a sheet of paper. "Yesterday and today, we held hands and prayed for courage and guidance to do the right thing."

Asked after the trial about his decision, Burrows said he just couldn't talk about it.

"It's too soon," he said. "I'm just not ready. I don't even want to talk to my wife about it. It was very hard."

Friends and family of the Danielses said Friday's verdict finally gives them the closure they need, although they felt sorry for Heidler's family.

"It was the right thing, but I do feel sorry for his sister, because she's going through the same thing we are," said Connie Smith, Kim Daniels' sister. "It's hard to lose someone. But he did what he did for no reason, and I feel he needs to pay for it."

Brandy Claxton, Kim Daniels' 17-year-old daughter, worries about her sisters and brothers. Corey and one of the girls are with Kim Daniels' former foster parents. Two other girls are with Danny Daniels' sister. Gabriel, who was 10 months old when the Danielses were killed, has been adopted out of state.

"The only thing that keeps me sane is that the day before (she was murdered) I saw her and said, 'I love you,' " Claxton said. "That's what keeps me sane."

Defense lawyers had tried all morning to raise sympathy and compassion for Heidler, whom they characterized as a mentally ill man with a troubled childhood who needed help rather than a death sentence.

But the testimony of Heidler's mother, sister, junior high school teacher, foster mother, a psychologist and several social workers did not overcome the gruesome crime.

Heidler's sister, Lisa Heidler Aguilar, was the last witness to testify for the jury.

"I don't want them to kill my brother," said the 24-year-old mother of three, breaking into tears on the stand.

Aguilar, who works with her husband as a migrant worker, testified that both her father and her stepfather had been alcoholics over the years, but neither had ever abused Heidler. She denied that black magic or voodoo had ever been practiced in her mother's household, as other witnesses have testified.

A worker from the Department of Family and Children Services testified that Heidler's mother, Mary Moseley, had threatened to cast spells on the child protective services workers who visited her home and checked up on her children. One spoke of Moseley leaving a voodoo doll with a pin in it in her office a decade ago.

Heidler, who had open-heart surgery when he was 4 years old, was placed in two foster homes because of poor supervision by his mother, the DFACS workers said.

He had imaginary friends, a mouse that he carried around in his hand, said Sylvia Boatright, Heidler's foster mother when he was 11. He called Boatright Grandma. She learned to love him, she said.

"All he'd ever say is 'come on lil' mouse, come on lil' mouse,' " said Boatright, who lives in Alma. "Scotty was also afraid of the dark. He was afraid a knife would come through the ceiling and cut him."

Later, when he returned to his mother, he attended a school in Baxley for children with learning disabilities. He mutilated himself by picking at his skin until he bled, testified Marilyn Dryden, his teacher at the time.

One time, Heidler didn't come to school

"So I rode over with my supervisor and we stood outside his door and sang, 'You are my sunshine,' and that got him up and he came out," Dryden said. "He came to school. He had a big smile on his face."

DFACS workers said by this time Heidler was a troubled young man in need of some help. He tried to commit suicide a number of times, mutilated himself and landed at Georgia Regional Hospital twice for mental problems -- once when he was 11 and another time when he was 13.

James Maish, a forensic psychologist from Augusta, testified Friday that Heidler suffered from a severe case of borderline personality disorder. He said Heidler had eight of the nine symptoms, including suicide attempts, outbursts of uncontrolled anger and "frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment."

About 2 percent of the population suffers from the disorder, and 10 percent of those kill themselves.

His diagnosis was not different from the other three court-appointed mental health experts who examined Heidler. But he took it a step further, saying Heidler had no control over his actions because of his genetic disposition.

"Originally, we thought that every personality disorder was from a bad environment growing up," Maish said. "In other words, whatever was going to happen, you'd lose the battle by age 6."

"In either case, nurture or nature, did Scotty Heidler have any control over this?" asked defense lawyer Michael Garrett.

"No, he can't control that," Maish said. "It's something you're born with."

Moseley, Heidler's mother, acknowledged her son was troubled. But she continued to pledge his innocence on the stand Friday.

"I raised Scotty," she said. "Scotty did not do that murder."

"Even though a jury found him guilty of it?" asked District Attorney Richard Malone.

Moseley shook her head.

"He loved that family. He cared for that family. My family cared for that family," she said. "He's not that kind of person. You've got to know him to know if he's capable of that."

The evidence against Heidler -- a confession, fingerprints at the scene, DNA evidence and witnesses -- was so strong that defense lawyers Michael Garrett and Kathy Palmer did not try to put up a defense.

They did try to save his life, though.

"About 350 years ago, our ancestors would know what to do about Scotty Heidler, they'd say 'He's possessed by the devil, let's burn him,' " Garrett said. "It's the supreme irony that here we are in 1999 at the end of the third millennium, and we have the same mentally ill person and you are asking to burn him, literally. Have we not progressed as a civilization any farther than that?"

Malone, however, pointed out that Heidler knew right from wrong and was responsible for his own actions.

"What happened in that house is consummate evil," Malone said. "Jerry Scott Heidler had a terrible childhood, yes, but when are we going to expect him to take responsibility for his actions?"

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